UC Berkeley students won short-term software funding, but there’s more work on the horizon

Illustration of Cal students holding up a laptop
Kelsey Choe /Staff

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To say that this past year hasn’t been easy for UC Berkeley students would be a severe understatement. We endured more than a year of unprecedented uncertainty, isolation and living our lives through a computer screen. This was especially true for our education, which relied almost exclusively on technology. Microsoft Word helped us write our papers, MATLAB supported our research and Adobe Creative Suite allowed us to express our feelings through art.

And so there was more than a hint of irony in the failure of the Student Technology Fund, or STF, fee referendum in the ASUC election last spring. Amid a pandemic requiring everyone to go to class on their computers, a referendum to fund software licenses failed to turn out a sufficient number of students.

The public ridicule on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit was more than warranted. UC Berkeley — a premier research college — was about to leave students without access to Microsoft and Adobe software licenses for the upcoming school year.

But this unfortunate turn of events soon presented an opportunity to reshape the status quo. When it comes to critical student-facing services, funding is all too often essentially forced onto students through student fees. But that wasn’t always the case. Prior to the passage of the original STF fee in 2014, funding for software licenses came from campus.

So, earlier this summer, undergraduate and graduate student leaders were presented with an opportunity to rehash the balance of funding for the software licenses that were previously funded by the STF fee, potentially saving the student body $1 million annually. We seized on that chance.

Our effort was not without its challenges. The first hurdle was to reject an attempt by campus to impose a semesterly $25 tax on students for the software licenses through a Miscellaneous Student Fee, or MSF, bypassing the elections process and forcing students to pay out-of-pocket for core academic resources. As student leaders wrote in a June op-ed for The Daily Californian, we were united in our plan to reject the MSF proposal and pressure the administration to fund the licenses itself. The strategy was not without its risks: We had to first reject the only plan on the table to ensure continued access to the software. Only then could we negotiate a better deal.

Our gamble worked. The Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees unanimously rejected the MSF proposal and began discussions with administrators about finding alternative funding for the licenses. In mid-July, a delegation of student leaders met with Chancellor Carol Christ to discuss where the campus stood on funding for the licenses. We left the meeting having successfully blocked the MSF but without an agreement on where the stopgap funding would come from.

Thankfully, on July 28, our hard work paid off when campus announced it would provide the necessary funding for the Microsoft and Adobe licenses for the 2021-22 academic year. Students got exactly what they had asked for: continued access to these critical resources without additional costs. This year, students will pay $51 less per semester in fees.

While we shouldn’t shy away from calling this a big win for students, we shouldn’t stop here. The campus’s funding commitment covers this academic year only; there is still no agreement on how to fund the licenses in the long term. So the natural question to ask is: What comes next?

One option would be to revert to the previous funding model where students pay upward of $50 per semester for technology resources, including the software licenses. This option requires another student fee referendum to be put on the ballot in spring 2022. If such a fee passes, this option brings us back to square one. It undoes the progress we made this summer and increases the financial burden on students amid ever-increasing UC tuition.

The second option involves more determination on our part. It calls for us to leverage this momentum to shift the question of software funding back onto UC Berkeley. Just like Zoom and Google Suite, software such as Microsoft Office, MATLAB and Adobe have become necessary to complete course assignments and conduct research. Amid growing financial inequality and the increasing unaffordability of a Berkeley education, it is vital that the campus stop offloading crucial resources onto additional student fees.

Under this option, we continue negotiations with campus with the goal of sustainable funding that is not 100% reliant on students’ money. If an “STF fee 2.0” is to make its way onto next year’s ballot, then it should provide funding only for technology grants and nonacademic resources. The funding for software licenses should be transferred to the campus.

The choice is ours. If we don’t want to continue to be UC Berkeley’s financial scapegoat, then it is up to us to reject any attempt to put the cost of the software on students. The power to vote on our student fees isn’t something we should take for granted — it’s time we all vote, and vote strategically.

James Weichert is the ASUC academic affairs vice president and the co-chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees. Maude Tipton is the chair of the Committee on Student Fees and Budget Review at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.